Syria’s Kurds can’t play a double game indefinitely

Among the few groups that are turning the war to some advantage are Syria's Kurds, writes Alan Philps.

Looking at the multiple wars being fought in Syria, it is hard not to conclude that there is only one participant that has managed to muster the resources and the will to advance its interests.

This is certainly not the Americans, who are patently unwilling to get involved on the ground in another Middle Eastern entanglement.

Nor is it the Turks, whose stability and prosperity has come crashing down over the five years of war, nor the Iranians, whose single-minded mobilisation of their co-religionists in the Arab world has saved the regime of Bashar Al Assad, but may yet yield a bitter fruit in the wider region. And it is not the Russians, whose ability to exit the conflict is unclear. Rather, it is the Syrian Kurds, probably the least talked about of the belligerents.

Deprived of the possibility of a homeland in the aftermath of the First World War, the Kurds of the region are minorities in all the countries they live in, predominantly Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. In 1962, the Syrian government deprived 300,000 of the Kurds of citizenship in an attempt to Arabise the north-east of the country.

When the uprising began against the Assad regime in 2011, the Syrian Kurds played a waiting game, but they have slowly carved out a territory that stretches from the north-east corner westward, along more than half of the Turkish border, as insurance against the humiliation of 1962 being repeated.

The Syrian Kurds have gained ground by proving useful to both the United States and Russia. Thanks to US air support, they regained the border town of Kobani from ISIL, the first of many defeats they have inflicted on the jihadists. The Syrian Kurds, acting as the spearhead on the ground for the US, are responsible for most of the loss of territory suffered by ISIL.

Now they are on the move in the west, around the town of Azaz, taking territory from other rebel groups thanks to the support of Russian bombers.

How can they be allied at the same time to the Russians and the Americans – rivals who appear at times to be close to a hot war? The simple answer is that the battlefronts are separate. In the east they are paired with the Americans and in the west with the Russians.

But this double game cannot last forever. The British foreign secretary Philip Hammond has spoken of “disturbing” evidence of the Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), coordinating with the Syrian regime and the Russian air force. John McCain, chairman of the US Senate armed services committee, has said that “a segment has aligned with the Russians because they want to win, and they see the Russians succeeding where we have failed”.

The relationship is clearly more than a few opportunistic fighters.

The Syrian Kurds have opened a representative office in Moscow. Russia is openly calling for the Syrian Kurds to participate in next week’s Geneva peace talks, despite fierce resistance from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The ability of the Kurds to play Russia and America against each other reflects a serious rift in the western alliance. Though Turkey is a Nato ally of Washington, the Americans have found the YPG militias a more useful partner on the ground than the Turks, arousing intense anger in Ankara.

For the Turks, the embryonic Kurdish autonomous area that is taking shape over the border with Syria is a threat to the existence of the Turkish state. In Ankara’s view, the YPG are no different from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been at war with the Turkish state for decades.

Now that the Russians have fallen out with Turkey, since the Turkish air force shot down one of their jets in November, playing footsie with the Kurds has the added attraction of driving president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is already feeling betrayed by the Americans, to distraction.

As the “cessation of hostilities” continues, the Russians are now floating the possibility of a diplomatic endgame, one based on a federal system in Syria. This is exactly what a Syrian Kurdish leader called for this week, saying the federal state should be founded on the “historical and geographical facts” of the peoples of Syria, including the Kurds.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has added more fuel to the hopes of the Syrian Kurds by hinting darkly that the map of Syria may need to be redrawn. This could be a warning shot to encourage the Syrian regime to open talks with the rebels, or face the prospect of the death of Syria as a unitary state.

Clearly there is a limit to how far the Kurds can manipulate both sides. The Kurds’ winning streak is not yet bankable and at some stage the Turks might move in to Syria to turn back their advance. If the Turkish army moved into northern Syria – though with Russian aircraft controlling the skies that is unlikely at the moment – the Kurds would have to give way.

In the end, federalism is hardly likely to be the glue that holds Syria together, unless it is the Russian type, where the central authorities exert an iron financial control of the provinces.

If Iraq is any example, it would do the opposite. The Iraqi constitution of 2005, which declared Iraq a federal republic, has allowed the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq to push its autonomy ever closer to independence. The journalist David Hirst, a veteran of The Guardian newspaper, wrote in October 2005 that the collapse of the Iraqi state was likely to inspire the Syrian Kurds.

“Syrian Kurds now sense similar weakness in their own deeply troubled Baathist regime. If it collapses amid generalised chaos, many will push for secession and amalgamation with their brethren in north Iraq,” Hirst wrote.

That collapse has happened and the Syrian Kurds have seized their chance. What remains to be seen is whether the battlefield will remain so amenable for the Kurds to exploit.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps